Feature by
Cethan Leahy

Picturebook of a Lady

Sarah McIntyre and the World of Visual Narratives

Picturebook illustrator, comic book creator and social media wonder, Seattle native Sarah McIntyre is a hive of activity. She is a constant presence online and her blog provides reams of fresh illustrations, comics and insight. In another sense, she is hard to miss because of her eye-catching outfits. When I spoke to her after a recent Dublin event, she was wearing cat-eye glasses, a striking hat and matching dress, resembling a grand lady of the 1950s. It is part of a carefully constructed persona, designed to appeal to children at events. ‘I used to be quite mousy and I kind of faked this vivid “character” at first. It was like play-acting. And then I discovered I quite like dressing up and running around in big hats. It is fun when you walk through a large crowd of people- they all turn around and stare after you. It used to be a fear: “Oh, have I got something on my face or something?” If you have a massive hat, you know why they are staring.’

Of course, we are not here to talk fashion, but picturebooks and comics, two worlds in which Sarah is deeply immersed. Illustrator of many picturebooks such as You Can’t Scare a Princess (text by Gillian Rogerson), When Titus Took the Train (text by Anne Cottringer), Morris The Mankiest Monster (text by Giles Andreae) and creator of the Vern and Lettuce comic, is equally at home in both worlds. I asked about the origins of her interest in comics. ‘I grew up reading comics in The Seattle Times newspaper with big, eight page sections, broadsheet size. Then I came to Britain and there were just these heavy colours with superheroes and tights and bimbo ladies and I thought, “Ahhh”.  At the time it really put me off and I saw picturebooks as much more my thing.’

However Sarah had a revelation after reading Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds, Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Livejournal authors like Kate Beaton- ‘I was like, “I get it”. Comics can be about anything! I knew that already from Calvin and Hobbes but I had forgotten it along the way.’ Sarah discovered a whole world of comics which had more to offer than capes and punchlines. ‘It could be the story of your life. Anything you can write a book about, you can have comics about. There is no limit. People call it a genre but it’s not. It’s a medium that can encompass every genre.’

Sarah mentioned one advantage of comics over picturebooks: the immediacy. ‘What actually happens is that a book you are excited about now won’t actually happen for about three years so by the time you get into that book, the editor is different and you’ve forgotten what it is a about a little bit. Where-as with a comic you can have it published on your blog the next morning. I love the immediacy of that as you don’t have to wait for years for it to be published. If I have an idea now, people can see it tomorrow or today even. It’s wonderful.’ It is clear that the rest of her work has been influenced by her interest in comics and comic-book sensibilities. You Can’t Scare a Princess features a ‘CRASH!’ that wouldn’t look out of place on the Batman television show and When Titus Took the Train features an intriguing intersection of picturebook and comic with the pages spilt into several sections.

Discussing her picturebooks, Sarah expanded on the process involved in creating the illustrations. She works from her studio in London, a converted police station that she shares with other illustrators. ‘I tend to create a thumbnail version of the whole book and go into Photoshop and block it out in colours. I usually take three or four colours and do the whole book very, very roughly and to see the compositions that can go on the page. They are only an inch big and then I go back later. When I have decided on the compositions, I actually do the details in pencil.’ She also revealed when faced with deadlines, she listens to video game soundtracks to provide a sense of urgency.

As an illustrator, Sarah is always collaborating with authors to create picturebooks. More often than not, she will not have met the author nor would she meet them during the process.  It is common practise, as it avoids complications, but Sarah noted that it ‘was kind of sad not meeting them, not knowing the writer. With Gillian Rogerson of the Princess books, I didn’t meet her for the first book but after the first book as soon as I turned in the art work, I sent her an email, saying, “Hi, Gillian, I just want to say I love your text.” And she immediately wrote back, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you. I love your stuff.” And we had a little geek-out.’ They are now friends and have done many events together.

One of the many charms of Sarah’s books is in the witty little details that are often squeezed into the page and the minor parallel narratives running along the main story, hidden in the illustrations. ‘Sometimes I do this if there’s a strong concept which I think can carry it and sometimes I think the text calls for a little more with more little stories going along inside a big story. It’s very satisfying for readers see details. It’s going to make kids interested, no matter how it looks artistically because there are interesting things going on in the picture so it’s always a fallback.’ Her books are full of novel touches. For example, in Morris the Mankiest Monster, she used a different, more earthy style, full of textures and collage, especially in her design of a cow whose skin is given a distinctive texture with a pattern of handwriting!

Sarah has many exciting upcoming projects. In addition to her illustration work for Superkid, with text by Claire Freedman, which will be published in May with Scholastic UK, she is illustrating her first series of chapter books, Seawigs, in collaboration with author Philip Reeve, whom she befriended at various book festivals. She is also committed to promoting children’s comics and possible directions for their future. Among her proposals is the placement of comics on the back of cereal boxes and a large database of comics and their creators that would be an essential guide for teachers and librarians to comics and comic-writing workshops.  ‘One of my main focuses is now children’s self publishing and the importance of kids making their own books.  I think with the recent loss of the printed version of The Dandy, there is a big debate about comics and their future in print and electronic publishing. I think a lot of people are just thinking, “let’s do the same thing, but try harder”. I’m keeping the discussion positive in thinking of new ways of putting comics in front of kids and encouraging children to encounter, discover and create them.’